Sugar, spice and -- robots?

  • Article by: PETER FUNK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2012 - 3:53 PM

An all-girl robotics team has a mission possible: becoming regional champs with their mix of science, engineering and fun.

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Lilly Bendel-Stenzel, 15, right, and Martina Horns, 14 — part of an all-girl robotics team from Valley View Middle School in Edina called the Green Exploding Volcano Monsters — tried to direct their teammates to straighten out their crooked platform during a demonstration in Richfield.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Meet Fawkes, a square box of wire, plastic and metal. Fawkes can lift, grab and push its weight around -- and may be the only robot named after the phoenix in Harry Potter.

The visionaries behind Fawkes' complex construction are a group of junior high girls with an even cooler name: the Green Exploding Volcano Monsters.

The Monsters, an all-girl robotics team from Valley View Middle School in Edina, are facing off against 23 other teams in the initial round of the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) this weekend in Prior Lake. They hope that Fawkes will make them the reigning regional champs and propel them to the world championship in St. Louis on April 25.

Their sponsors hope that just competing in a robotics championship will encourage the girls to consider going into technology, an industry where women comprise just 25 percent of the workforce, according to a 2009 study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

"There is no reason why women in IT can't be every bit as strong as anybody else in the IT field," said Mick Johannes, vice president of Sogeti-Minneapolis, the information technology consulting firm that has supported the 10-member Monsters team for the past three years.

Sogeti, which has offices in Richfield, came to the aid of the girls in a roundabout way. Roy Davis, a manager in software security for Sogeti, volunteered to coach the Monsters when his oldest daughter, Allison, wanted to join the team. Davis soon discovered an important fact about robotics: It ain't cheap.

Davis approached Johannes about paying the team's $2,000 annual budget. Johannes agreed because he saw it as a community outreach program and a way to introduce more girls to technology.

Davis is a proponent of all-girl teams, not only because his two daughters are Monsters members. Limiting the group to girls levels the playing field, he said.

"It's typical of the age group, I guess, but when you've got something like this, where you've got boys and girls together and you've got tools and you've got robot parts and stuff," Davis said, "it sometimes can turn out that the boys just kind of reach in there and get their hands dirty, and the girls sort of stand around the edge and watch."

But Rachel Davis, the coach's youngest daughter, thinks the girls might have an advantage over the boys.

"We think more down-to-Earth sometimes," she said. "And instead of 'Oh, this is a really cool idea,' we think, 'This is a really cool idea, how do we make it work?'"

All-girl robotics teams are still rare, but their numbers are growing. In 2008, the first year of the regional competition, there was only one all-girl team, said Joe Passofaro, an affiliate partner for Minnesota FTC. This year there are three.

Passofaro sees that as a good thing for the competition and the industry.

"If you want to have a very well-rounded technological approach, I think it is important that we do get more women involved in it," he said. "I think it's critical, actually."

Fueled by pizza

The idea for Fawkes began as so many great brainstorming sessions do -- at a pizza party.

For each competition, FTC officials come up with a different task for the robots to complete. This year, teams had to design a machine that could put racquetballs in a crate, lift a crate and roll a bowling ball to a designated spot. Each task is worth a certain number of points, but it's up to the team to determine how they want to try to get the most points.

The Monsters decided to design a robot that would place one racquetball into a crate, then lift that crate as high as possible.

They also divvied up tasks of planning, programming, building and decorating.

Erika Ding, 15, is a programmer. "I type the code and set all the wires and stuff up," she said. Rachel Davis does the community outreach. And Lilly Bendel-Stenzel, well, "My technical term is the team spirit captain," she said. "I'm in charge of, like, keeping everyone motivated and working together."

Davis admitted the team has had its challenges, but he said he's enjoyed seeing the girls mix fun and work.

"It is amazing how they can actually complete something that we need to get done, while having a conversation about the latest posting on Facebook," he said.

This is the third year the Green Exploding Volcano Monsters have taken part in the regional robotics competition. In 2010, they finished in fifth place. In 2011, they dropped to seventh. (The blame was laid on a malfunctioning battery charger.) This year, the girls are looking for a big win. Ding said that if they execute their plan, their chances are pretty good.

Davis, however, tries to emphasize the experience over winning.

"One of the things that I tell the girls is just showing up with a robot and being a part of it is really what it's all about," he said. "You can't take it too seriously."

Peter Funk is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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